It’s rarely fair to discuss the novel from whence a film has been adapted. Most viewers haven’t read the book, and so will be left out of the conversation. Even more frequently, the literary source is a mere point of departure, providing a framework plot and perhaps a mood, rather than details.
But when discussing Richard J. Lewis’ take on the late Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel, Barney’s Version, it’s almost impossible not to discuss the source, if only to illustrate pale and confused the film is by comparison.
Paul Giamatti, as hirsute and bumptiously, growlingly self-loathing and simultaneously life-loving as ever, plays Barney Panofsky, a Montreal-based producer of time-filler television whose opinion of his own work can be summed up in his company’s name: Totally Unnecessary Productions. Grinding out long-running schlock like O’Malley of the North (about a Mountie, of course) has made Barney stinking rich. But when the film opens, his tony apartment is empty but for the sounds of his last ex-wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), a radio host whose show Barney — a romantic despite all the gruff and bluster — never misses.
The film that follows aims for picaresque swirl as it tracks through the many periods of Barney’s life and loves. There is his bohemian period in the 1970s, swanning around Rome with his artist friends and the brutally insulting Clara (Rachelle Lefevre). Barney makes the mistake of marrying her in a pique of self-hatred, and not long after, she cuckolds him and takes her own life. Marriage number two, to a relentless harpie (Minnie Driver, turning a cliché inside out and owning it), is cut short once Barney gets an eyeful of Miriam at his wedding reception, and decides he may as well run after her (through the rain, of course) and declare his undying love to her onboard a train, still wearing a sodden tuxedo.
Barney is nothing if not relentless, and it’s that pile-driver force that occasionally brings the film to life. He is drunk more often than not and frequently swathed in cigar smoke, glaring out at a world that enraptures but also infuriates him. In between his marriages, Barney is outrunning demons, not just the shade of guilt that has hung over him since Clara’s death, but also the murder charge that’s been dogging him in the years since his onetime best friend and somewhat rival, the ridiculously handsome and overly talented Boogie (Scott Speedman), went missing at Barney’s cabin after an argument. Barney just charges through it all, though Giamatti offers a rich, layered characterization, some of the finest acting that you’ll see on the screen this or any year.
This performance helps Lewis’ film to deliver many of the book’s particulars. It also shares enough of the novel’s Canadian pedigree to include some great local talent in cameos (Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan, and David Cronenberg all play O’Malley directors). But it can’t pass along any of the source’s soulful complexities, its intellectual grit or its baleful humor. Richler’s Barney was one of those end-of-an-era renaissance men, smart and well read enough to know exactly how much he was prostituting himself. His narrative rants against the mediocrity of the present — passages that called to mind the best of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow — were ferocious in a way the film’s mushy direction misses out on completely. Lewis’ Barney is a jerk but a lovable one, unlike the book’s protagonist, who was a reactionary jerk you respected. That Barney’s father, Izzy, was the first Jewish cop in his precinct, a tough pile of venal faults who never met a prostitute he wouldn’t take a freebie from. For Richler, Izzy is adorably embarrassing like that Dustin Hoffman in Meet the Fockers, off-color but with a heart of gold, much like Barney himself.
The film isn’t entirely unpleasant. Some of Giamatti’s scenes with Pike (less rigid here than usual) are so full of longing and needle-sharp exchanges that they can almost remind you of why you go to the movies in the first place. But by excising the dark heart of the novel, the thread of the tangled story comes loose, and the denouement at Barney’s cabin occasions unintentional laughs. Richler’s story was as steeped in literature and rough-earned erudition as it was in scotch and cigars. The movie wouldn’t know a book if it tripped over one.